Elastic Bandages

When to Use an Elastic Bandage and When Not To

elastic bandage
Elastic bandages are for compression, not support. (c) Rod Brouhard

Elastic bandages (also known as compression bandages) are often used for the compression part of RICE -- rest, ice, compression and elevation -- the gold standard of first aid treatment for bruises and sprains.

Probably the most common brand name for an elastic bandage is an Ace wrap.

Elastic bandages do a good job of compressing a new injury or inflammation and help keep swelling down. However, there's a limit to how long you should compress an injury.

At some point, blood flow to the injured area needs to increase to encourage healing.

Elastic Bandage Dos and Don'ts

  • Do use elastic bandages only in the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury. Essentially, you wouldn't use an elastic bandage any more than you would use ice on an injury.
  • Do combine rest and elevation with compression whenever possible.
  • Don't wrap ice under the elastic bandage. Always apply ice and compression separately to avoid frostbite. The best bet is to alternate ice and compression. Remember: either ice or Ace, but not both.
  • Don't wrap elastic bandages too tightly. The idea is just to discourage swelling, not to block blood flow altogether.
  • Don't try to wrap an ankle or a knee with an elastic bandage to keep it from twisting or getting re-injured. Elastic bandages do not provide support; they are simply for compression.

Size Matters

Elastic bandages usually come in 2-, 3- or 4-inch widths.

The wider the bandage, the more compression you get without blocking actual blood flow. Typically, for an adult arm or leg, you want to use a 3- or 4-inch bandage.

Adult fingers and kids' arms and legs can get away with the narrower 2-inch width bandage.

Alternative Options

Self adherent compression bandages (Coban or Sensi-wrap) provide compression similar to an elastic bandage.

They have the added benefit of behaving like tape without sticking to the skin. These wraps can be torn easily to the length the rescuer needs and they are capable of wrapping tight enough to be an adequate tourniquet.

Self adherent compression wraps are common in sports settings and come in several different widths ranging from 1/2-inch to 4 inches. Since they act like tape, they're more versatile in a first aid kit than a typical elastic bandage.

Gauze wraps like Kerlix, Kling or Conform are not as springy as an elastic bandage. They aren't used much for compression because they just don't get tight enough while still holding their wide shapes. Gauze wraps are better for controlling bleeding or dressing open wounds.

Tourniquets

With the exception of self adherent compression wraps, none of these options would make a passable tourniquet. Tourniquets should completely staunch blood flow to distal parts of the extremity on which they are used.

Use compression bandages with care and they'll help you heal minor injuries.

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